Tuesday, May 23, 2017


James Karas

Théâtre Français de Toronto has staged an imaginative, well-acted and smartly directed production of Moliere’s Dom Juan at the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs.

The play has some 19 characters and is episodic in structure as the arch-lecher in history pursues women and runs in and out of scrapes. Director Joël Beddows has judiciously reduced the number of characters to eleven with six actors playing all the parts. Pierre Simpson as Dom Juan and Marcello Arroyo as Sganarelle are the only actors who take one role each while the others handle the rest.

The plot follows the general outline of the story, perhaps better known from Mozart’s much later retelling in his opera Don Giovanni. Dom Juan is followed by his colourful and cowardly sidekick Sganarelle and chased by his wife Donna Elvira (Lina Blais who also plays Mathurine). He pursues the peasant girl Charlotte (played by Sophie Goulet who also plays Madame Dimanche). He is bawled out by his father Dom Luis (played by Nicolas van Burek who also plays Pierrot) to no effect. Eventually he goes to dinner with the Statue of the Commodor and gets his just reward.  
Dom Juan (Marc LeMyre) – Lina Blais, Pierre Simpson, Sophie Goulet

Simpson as Dom Juan is a veritable chameleon, charming, ruthless, predatory, mendacious and romantic who leads an amoral life focused on the seduction of women. The sleek and slender Simpson gives a Dom Juan that is quite repulsive and attractive at the same time for his success in selfishness and ability to go through with his sins. Is he a Donald Trump with a better vocabulary and better manners?

Arroyo may well have the best role as Sganarelle. Moliere took this part when the play was first performed in 1665. Sganarelle is the opposite of Don Juan. He grows lyrical about the virtues of tobacco, moralizes about his employer’s life, and is a coward and a great character for an actor. Arroyo takes advantage of all of these traits and gives us a lively Sganarelle.
Lina Blais plays Elvira, the woman who was abducted from the convent, married Dom Juan and was abandoned by him. She is angry, vengeful, pleading and a classic victim. Blais also plays the peasant girl Mathurine that Dom Juan tries to seduce along with Charlotte, anther peasant. A fine performance.
Dom Juan (Marc LeMyre) – Nicolas Van Burek, Marcelo Arroyo, Lina Blais, Pierre Simpson, Sophie Goulet, Christian Laurin
Sophie Goulet plays Charlotte as well as Madame Dimanche (Monsieur Dimanche in the original play), the hounding bill collector. Again a well done performance.
Beddows sets a brisk pace and seems to have made cuts in some of the lengthy speeches. In the opening scene where Sganarelle praises tobacco and denigrates Dom Juan to Elvira’s brother Guzman (Christian Laurin), Beddows has the two men drunk and rolling on the floor and Guzman actually passes out. A fine way to jazz up the scene. There are similar touches throughout.

The only props on the stage are three transparent plastic cases. They are big enough to hold a person and are easily moved around. There are dressing rooms on each side of the stage where the actors change costumes in sight of the audience.

The costumes are modern, I suppose. The lower classes wear undershirts and pants, the women wear wedding gowns, a suit and ordinary clothes. But we do see ruffles on Dom Juan’s father Dom Luis (Nicolas van Burek).

Kudos to the cast and especially to Beddows for a fine and well-paced production.
The production is done in French with English surtitles. There is a lot of text to be followed on a screen above the acting area and it is not always easy to do it.

Dom Juan by Moliere opened on May 10 and will play until May 28, 2017 at the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs, 26 Berkeley Street, Toronto, Ontario. www.theatrefrancais.com

Saturday, May 20, 2017


James Karas

Scheduling problems prevented me from seeing the Seven Siblings Theatre’s production of The Play About the Baby until its penultimate performance. Edward Albee’s play is a marvelously absurdist, funny, dramatic and out of the natural and logical world. Erika Downie directs an energetic and superb production that revels in the theatricality, mystery and enigmatic variations of the play. Unfortunately it closes on May 21. My full review will full in a couple of days.

The Play About the Baby by Edward Albee in a production by Seven Siblings Theatre, plays from May 12 to May 21, 2017 at The Rhino, 1249 Queen St W, 2nd Floor, Toronto, Ontario. http://www.sevensiblingstheatre.ca/the-play-about-the-baby/

Tuesday, May 16, 2017


James Karas

The Boy in the Moon is a heart-wrenching and emotionally draining play that receives a stunning production from Crow’s Theatre. It sustains an emotional level throughout its uninterrupted ninety minutes that many productions would be lucky to reach in their climactic moments.

The play is based on Ian Brown’s book The Boy in the Moon: A Father's Search for His Disabled Son, which has been masterfully adapted for the stage by Emil Sher. The boy, named Walker, is born to Brown and his wife, columnist and film critic Johanna Schneller, with a rare genetic disorder that leaves him severely handicapped.

Walker’s limitations and his resulting needs almost defy belief. He is fed through a tube in his stomach and he is incontinent. He punches himself almost constantly and attaching the feeding bag to his stomach and changing his diaper while keeping his arms and legs from wreaking havoc require manual and bodily dexterity that would tax an Olympic gymnast. Brown has had to do it countless times.
 Liisa Repo-Martell and David Storch. Photo Dahlia Katz
That was only a small part of the routine of looking after Walker. He would scream or make noises for hours. Brown and Schneller could rarely get a good night’s sleep and arguments between them increased putting a serious strain on their marriage.

Sher has been able to take parts of the harrowing story which is heartbreaking on the page but seems like a poor candidate for the stage and fashioned a play that captures the tragic life of Walker and his effect on Brown, Schneller and his older sister Hayley. Amid the excruciating difficulties of living with and caring for Walker, we see the love, the unbelievable love that Brown and Schneller have for him.

But the two are only human and the stress put on their physical and emotional stamina gets the better of them and Brown considers methods of ending Walker’s and his own life.

David Storch gives a stellar performance as Brown. He illustrates Brown’s hellish emotional arc, his attempts to find an answer to the unanswerable, his efforts to reach his son (like looking at the man or boy in the moon when you know he is not there), the wrenching decision to place him in an institution and above all, his love. That is an emotional journey that Storch takes as Brown in a performance that is first rate.
David Storch, Kelly McNamee, Lisa Repo-Martell. Photo: Dahlia Katz
Liisa Repo-Martell plays Schneller and she goes through emotional hell as well. The book is written by Brown and he gets most of the attention but she is equally affected and their love for Walker and the distress at their separation are simply unforgettable. A superb performance by Repo-Martell.

Kelly McNamee plays daughter Hayley and a number of minor characters. She is in part the victim of Walker’s condition and the impact it has on her parents’ life. She does some short ballet sequences as an antidote to the horrors of life at home and perhaps as an illustration of what life may have been like if her brother were born normal.

Director Chris Abraham, aside from getting outstanding performances from the cast, makes full use of the almost empty stage. Circles of light are used judiciously to indicate the moon. He and Monica Dottor have choreographed scenes that give some graphic illustrations of life with Walker.

A deeply moving night at the theatre.  

The Boy in the Moon by Emil Sher based on the book by Ian Brown opened on May 12 and will play until May 2, 2017 at the Streetcar Crowsnest Theatre, 345 Carlaw Avenue, Toronto, Ontario M4M 2T1. http://crowstheatre.com/

Sunday, May 14, 2017


The phrase “thinking out of the box” is used frequently to describe ideas that are neither very original nor deserving of particular adulation. That cannot be said of Judith Thompson’s Wildfire, a moving theatrical creation about people with Down syndrome that is acted by people with the genetic disorder.

Three young women and four young men with acting experience walk in the acting area of the Tank House Theatre in the Young Centre and face the audience. They speak directly to us about love that is like a wildfire and burns everything.
Dylan Harman Livaja, Michael Liu, Sarah Carney and Suzanne Love, photo: Sophia Thompson-Campbell
They speak about themselves and especially about the institutionalization and degradation of people with the genetic disorder that they are all afflicted with. They speak of Huronia Asylum for Idiots and Imbeciles. The patients or inmates suffered abuse and violence in an institution that was no different from a prison. They were even used for experiments. There was no reading, no writing and no attempt to assimilate them into the rest of society.

The actors in the play are Sarah Carney, Nicholas Herd, Michael Liu, Dylan Hermaqn Livaja, Suzanne Love, Krystal Hope Nausbaum and Andreas Prinz.

One of the horrifying stories that they relate is the fate of Rosemary Kennedy, the daughter of Joseph Kennedy and the sister of President John F. Kennedy. Rosemary was intellectually disabled but her father arranged for her to have a lobotomy and she was effectively erased from existence.

The actors even put on their own version of Romeo and Juliet and contrive a happy ending for us. Romeo and Jazz, two gay men, are married and kiss lovingly. The actors then pick up the posters from the back of the stage and turn them over for the audience to see. During the performance, the posters read “Huronia,” “No visitors,” “No exit” and maxims like that suitable to a prison. When they are turned over we see the names and dates of former inmates, most of them having died as teenagers.
Dylan Harman Livaja, Nicholas Herd and Michael Liu, photo: Sophia Thompson-Campbell
The final insult of the institution was to bury the inmates in unmarked graves or graves with only a number.

Brett Haynes’ set consists of stark white background with the posters I just mentioned lined up across the back of the stage. Denis Huneault-Joffre has designed a bland overall for the actors to wear befitting people who have no individual existence.

We see people on stage who are both actors and sufferers of Down syndrome. They are performing in a play as well as describing their own lives. It is drama and documentary combined where fact and fiction are almost inseparable. What they tell us applies to the victims of long ago, to today’s people and to them at the same time.

Judith Thompson who knows something about genetic disorders (she has epilepsy) has created the amazing play and directs it. It is something unexpected, moving, and instructive, and shows thinking and creativity that are decidedly “out of the box.”  

Wildfire created and directed by Judith Thompson, in a production by RARE Theatre Company continues until May 30, 2017 at the Tank House Theatre, Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario. www.soulpepper.ca

Friday, May 12, 2017


Reviewed by James Karas

The Greek Community of Toronto’s Irida Art Group has staged the light comedy Mia Italida stin Kypseli with some fine comic successes and a few issues that bedevilled the performance.

Mia Italida by Nikos Tsiforos and Polyvios Vasiliadis started as a successful stage play and was made into an even more successful movie in 1968 in the heyday of Finos Film (and coincidentally the junta.)

The plot: Tony has married Bianca while the two are studying in Italy. His rich sister Toula is anti-Greek women as wives and the young couple decide to pretend that Bianca is Italian. They need Toula’s money. Bianca comes to Tony’s family pretending not to speak a word of Greek. Toula is acid-tongued and misses no opportunity to belittle Polykratis, her loser husband who has been squished into utter submission.

We have John, an Englishman and former consul in Africa who is interested in Tony’s mother. There is also Renée, a French woman who will come in handy for wrapping up the plot and making sure everybody lives happily ever after. The inevitable sharp-tongued maid Eleni helps with the comedy as do Panagiotis, a crook and fraud artist, and Babis, a colourful tavern owner.

The plot will move towards convincing Toula that Greek women are better than “European” spouses and get on with marital pairings.

The Good and the Avoidable:  The play was directed by Grigoris Terzakis under what might politely be termed trying conditions. Terzakis also took on the main male role of Tony and he gave a fine performance and overcame most of the adverse circumstances. He has stage presence and an instinct for comedy. Tony must lie, connive, deal with exasperating people and eventually manage to pull off his stunt. He was able to project his voice and be heard at all times, something that the auditorium made mandatory and not everyone could achieve.

Katerina Tsekarea made a splendid Bianca. Tall, lithe, leggy, sensual and dressed to emphasize those assets, she made a Bianca that was visually and comically attractive. She tended to speed well beyond the limit in her speech at times and in the available acoustics respect for velocity would have been advisable.

Effie Antonopoulou as Toula and Giorgos Kefalas as her long-suffering husband Polykratis made an ideal couple if you like abuse and marital pain. The audience enjoyed the comedy of the situation. Vasiliki Ignantiadou made the best of the role of Renée as did Ioanna Apatsidou as Argyro.

Christina Kefala milked the role of Eleni the mouthy maid for all its worth and Nikos Rammos-Kapalidis made a fine impression and got the laughs as the irreverent tavern owner who comes to collect on his bill.

Dimitris Vohaitis played the crooked Panagiotis. The shiny-pated Vohaitis looked fine and had some very good lines. On his first entry, he staggers in obviously inebriated. He then forgets that he is drunk and walks out normally. Surely there were missed chances for good laughs as in a pratfall, a stumble, slurred speech, knocking over a piece of furniture and probably others, none of which was done.

Nikos Tsekas plays John, the English gentleman. Tsekas has a perfect Greek accent but not a trace of an English pronunciation. His lines are good and he does get the laughs but he is no English gentlemen.

I might mention that in the first twenty minutes, all the people on stage simply sat on couches with no movement at all. That could have and should have been corrected.

The venue: The play was performed in the auditorium of East York Collegiate in Toronto. The acoustics were simply atrocious and microphones were installed in front of the stage with a large speaker in the middle so that people could hear the dialogue. It worked most of the time. Some of the amateur actors who may not have had many if any rehearsals in the high school auditorium did not or could not project their voices to all of the audience all the time.

The set consisted of a couple of couches and a few pieces of furniture which is pretty much to be expected for an amateur production

The Unnecessary: Mia Italida opens in the living room of Tony’s family. In this production it opened with a singer and a few couples dancing. It had no relation to the play and I have no idea why it was inserted. My best guess is that Terzakis wanted to include the Greek Community’s dance group in the production, no matter what. At the end, when all the plot strands are quickly resolved and the actors are ready to take a bow, there is more singing. Both are out of place and if you cannot blend them into the play, you should leave them out.

There are supposed to be over 100,000 Greeks in Toronto but the chances of seeing Greek theatre have always been slim in the 150 years since the first Greek arrived in the city. Irida Art Group was organized last September and it is made largely of “new” Greeks. Many of them were educated in Greece and are a breath of fresh air for the Greek Community. They do not need to learn a role almost phonetically and struggle with accents.  

Irida, like the goddess after which it is named, perhaps can reach across the ocean and time to the fountainhead of Western drama and quench our thirst with a few drops of theatre. 

Mia Italida stin Kypseli by Nikos Tsiforos and Polyvios Vasiliadis was performed on May 6 and 7, 2017 at East York Collegiate Institute, Toronto, in a production by Irida Art Group of the Greek Community of Toronto

Monday, May 8, 2017


Reviewed by James Karas

The Canadian Opera Company wraps up its 2016-2017 season with the second revival of Paul Curran’s production of Tosca. It is a highly praiseworthy production that has stood the test of time very well.

The COC has assembled a first rate cast led by Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka in the title role with tenor Marcelo Puente as Cavaradossi and bass-baritone Markus Marquardt as Scarpia. The latter two are making their COC debus while Pieczonka sang in the 2008 revival of this production.

Much depends on the soprano who plays the lead role and handles the passionate, histrionic and highly dramatic Tosca. She is jealous, suspicious and loving in the first act. Her over-the-top jealousy and suspicions elicited some laughter. In the second act she is the diva who is forced to hear her lover being tortured as the malevolent Scarpia tries to seduce her. He wants her body in exchange for Cavaradossi’s life. In the third she is heroic as she celebrates the imminent release of Cavaradossi and their escape to freedom.
Adrianne Pieczonka as Tosca and Markus Marquardt as Scarpia in Tosca. Photo: Michael Cooper
Her sumptuous voice is lyrical, passionate and dramatic as she goes through the various stages. “Vissi d’arte” is Tosca’s signature aria, a recollection of a life for art, beauty, faith and humanity wrecked by a malicious officer of the law. Even God has forsaken her. My one complaint is about her performance in the scene where she stabs Scarpia. After inflicting psychological torture on her and getting her to finally submit to his lechery, Tosca kills her tormentor. It is a moment of supreme triumph and horror. She taunts him as he is dying and when she sings “Die …die…die” I wanted to hear a scream filled with venom and triumph. Pieczonka was dramatic but fell short of the possibilities of the scene.

I wonder how effective it would be if, after her last expression of contempt and victory, “And before this man, all Rome trembled!” she spits on him?

Puente sang an impressive Cavaradossi. In his moment of triumph when he hears that Napoleon has conquered Rome, Puente belts out and holds “Vittoria” and sings joyously about freedom. In “E lucevan le stele,” his beautiful aria before his death, he remembers falling in love with Tosca, her embrace, her languorous caresses and her radiant beauty. He sings with so much pathos, longing and beauty that he brought the house down.
Adrianne Pieczonka as Tosca and Marcelo Puente as Cavaradossi in Tosca. Photo: Michael Cooper
Marquardt is a business-like creep which increases his malice and lust by not being overdone. He is a man who knows his power and is free to treat and mistreat people at will. Marquardt succeeds in his portrayal vocally in his assured singing and as a character in his display of evil.

Curran and Set and Costume Designer Kevin Knight take a conservative approach to the opera. The church of Sant’Andrea della Valle in the opening scene is monumental with two large columns dominating the set. The columns are moved to the side opening the whole stage to the entry of a very sumptuously attired chorus that delivers a rousing end to Act I.

Scarpia’s office in Act II is elegantly furnished as becomes its powerful occupant. The     ramparts of Castel Sant’Angelo where Cavaradossi is executed and from which Tosca jumps to her death are impressive and appropriate.

The COC Orchestra is conducted by Keri-Lynn Wilson who has many virtues as a conductor in addition to doing a superb job. She is a woman (yes, they are still a rarity on the podium), she is Canadian and she is making her debut with the COC. What more do you want?

An overall outstanding production of one of the most popular operas.

Tosca by Giacomo Puccini opened on April 30 and will be performed twelve times with some cast changes until May 20, 2017 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671. www.coc.ca

Friday, May 5, 2017


By James Karas

Strictly Ballroom, The Musical, has the benefit of truth in the title. It is indeed an extravaganza of ballroom dancing based on Baz Lurhmann’s 1992 film of the same name, minus the subtitle.

There is a plot that may be described as typical of a musical, there is singing, some production (and perhaps overproduction) values that bring colour, energy, movement and even excitement. But most of all there is serious, competitive ballroom dancing that is elegant, muscular, virtually acrobatic and simply extraordinary.
 Photo from 2016 UK Production of Strictly Ballroom - Photo Credit: Alastair Muir

The musical is set in Australia where ballroom dancing seems to be taken as a competitive sport and winning the Pan-Pacific Dancing Competition is like winning the Stanley Cup. The plot is, to coin a phrase, as corny as Kansas in August. Scott (Sam Lips) comes from a family of ballroom dancers and he is aiming for the Pan-Pacific. He is a brilliant dancer and he wants to be creative as well as highly competent. In other words he wants to invent his own steps and according to the rules that is unacceptable.

He meets the frumpy Fran (Gemma Sutton) and dismisses her out of hand until he realizes that, like him, she is not only highly talented but also inventive.

His mother Shirley (Tamsin Carroll) and Fran’s proto-homo sapiens father Rico (Fernando Mira) oppose the idea for different reasons. Rico can do some remarkable Spanish steps but he is very short on temper and English. The latter characteristic with Fran’s grandmother Abuela’s (Eve Polycarpou) equal facility with English provide some laughs but more annoyance.

With so much opposition to Scott and Fran dancing together and some other complications the big question as to who will dance and who will win and who will be disqualified for the Pan-Pacific remain in suspenseful doubt until the last pirouettes and acrobatics of the evening. Sure.
 Photo from 2016 UK Production of Strictly Ballroom - Photo Credit: Alastair Muir
There are a number of songs by the main characters and the ensemble but no one will be indicted for first-degree singing and most will get clemency and some credit for second degree renditions usually with fervor if not tonal beauty.

The revolving set by Soutra Gilmour provides quick changes in scenes with risers on the side, a big arch with room for actors on the top and generally a grandiose effect.

The costumes by Catherine Martin provide the usual frills for the women dancers, tights and sparkles for everyone and legs that go on forever to combine with generous displays of flesh.

Drew McOnie choreographed and directs the large cast in what is intended and is very much a ballroom dancing extravaganza held together by a corny plot but enhanced by production values that some may consider overdone.

Lips, Sutton, Carroll, Charlotte Gooch, Lauren Stroud, Gary Watson and the ensemble display grace, athleticism, vigour and sheer dancing talent that is nothing less than astounding. The rest is simply a means of getting them on stage to dance.

Strictly Ballroom, The Musical created by Baz Luhrmann, adapted by Terry Johnson based on the film with new musical numbers by various composers opened On May 3 and will continue until June 25, 2017 at The Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King St. West, Toronto, Ontario. www.mirvish.com.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017


James Karas

Oscar Straus and Leopold Jacobson recognized a good story when they saw one. The good story was Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man. Jacobson crafted the libretto, Straus composed the music and the result was the delightful operetta The Chocolate Soldier which opened in 1908 in Vienna.

Toronto Operetta Theatre’s General Director Guillermo Silva-Marin recognizes a good operetta, he produces it. Silva-Marin knows more about operetta than just about anyone south of Thunder Bay and he didn’t exactly stumble onto The Chocolate Soldier during the last eclipse of the moon but he has produced a highly enjoyable staging at the St. Lawrence Center for the Arts. For Torontonians operetta equals Silva-Marin.
 (in the middle) Jennifer Taverner as Nadina, and Cian Horrobin as Alexius, with TOT Ensemble. Photo: Gary Beechey
The chocolate soldier is Bummerli, a Swiss in the Serbian army of 1885 who breaks into the bedroom of the lovely and romantic Nadina, a Bulgarian. Serbia and Bulgaria are at war, you see, and Nadina is the daughter of Colonel Popoff, the leader of the Bulgarian army.

Bummerli is a “coward” and he asks for chocolates and you may guess correctly that despite appearances to the contrary, the Swiss “coward” and the Bulgarian beauty do not go to war.

But Nadina is engaged to be married to the heroic Alexius who just won an extarordunary victory by leading a cavalry charge against the Serbian canons. Keep it to yourself, but the reason he charged was because his horse ran away with him and he won because the Serbians had no ammunition.

Straus has provided some beautiful, surcharged romantic arias, some patriotic songs, a few arguments and misunderstandings, and a good dose of humour until all wrinkles are worked out and they live happily ever after. No, I will not tell you how it ends and no peeking at a summary of the plot.

What do you need for a successful production? A lovely Nadina, with a beautiful voice is indispensable. She should make you want to live in Bulgaria of yore. Soprano Jennifer Taverner does all of that. She starts by gushing about “My hero,” goes through her “Alexius the Heroic” phase of her life and…well, I can’t tell you the rest but you will be glad you saw and heard Ms Taverner in the role. 
Gregory Finney (Popoff) and Eugenia Dermentzis (Aurelia). Photo: Gary Beechey
Get an anti-heroic or perhaps heroic Bummerli and baritone Michael Nyby fills the bill. He has a well-honed voice and sings with apparent ease. He is manly enough to say that he is a coward and romantic enough to pretend that he is not.  

The heroic Alexius played by tenor Cian Horrobin as a strutting, papier-mâché fool was a bit overdone and failed to be funny. His voice reached for the high notes and succeeded but in this case, the question of whether the tenor will get the girl remained wide open.

Baritone Gregory Finney plays the comic martinet role of Col. Popoff. Finney is a naturally funny actor and he got most of the laughs of the performance. He and the production should have gotten more laughs but perhaps it was the type of audience that was difficult to engage during the performance that I saw.

The lusciously-voiced Eugenia Dermentzis sang the role of Aurelia, Nadina’s mother and the Mascha, the competitor for Alexius’s heart was sung by the sweetly-voiced Anna Caroline Macdonald.

Peter Tiefenbach conducted the handful of musicians that are listed as an orchestra. The amazing thing is not how few they are but how well they perform. The chorus is equally good.

A couple of observations about Silva-Marin’s directing. On some occasions characters spoke directly to the audience even when they were addressing another person on the stage. Some of the humour, as I said, misfired. But aside from that this is a commendable production of a fine operetta. Considering the resources on hand for TOT, their productions, it is worth repeating, are done with one hand tied behind their back. The point is not the obstacles but their persistence and success. They should be performing at the Winter Garden with a full orchestra and more productions and performances.

The Chocolate Soldier by Oscar Straus (music), Leopold Jacobson and Rudolph Bernauer (original book and lyrics), adapted and arranged by Ronald Hanmer, played from April 26 to 30, 2017 at the Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  (416) 922-2912. www.torontooperetta.com

Thursday, April 27, 2017


James Karas

In 1966 composer Harry Somers with librettists Mavor Moore and Jacques Languirand undertook the task of writing an epic opera on Canadian themes in a country not accustomed to epic stories or even native operas for that matter. The result was Louis Riel which was first produced in 1967 to celebrate Canada’s 100th birthday. There have been a few productions of the opera since then but it has not exactly joined the standard repertoire. The COC produced it in 1975 and let it collect dust for about 41 years. Canada’s 150th birthday seemed a good time to bring it back.

Louis Riel is a sprawling work in seventeen scenes spread over about a dozen locations and covering about sixteen years. The focus of the plot is the Metis leader who was seen as a prophet, a warrior against Satan, a gifted leader of Canada’s indigenous people, a lunatic, a religious fanatic and a traitor who was eventually executed as a criminal. The plot also deals with mendacious politicians like Sir John A. Macdonald, the Catholic Church, racist Canadians and the lot of Metis and First Nations Canadians.
(l-r, foreground) Russell Braun as Louis Riel, Michael Colvin as Thomas Scott and Charles Sy as Ambroise Lépine in Louis Riel, 2017. Photo: Michael Cooper
Somers’ music is in turn dissonant, dramatic, lyrical and intense. Much of the singing is declamatory, occasionally stentorian and at times very moving. The beautiful lullaby Kuyas sung by Riel’s wife Marguerite (Canadian soprano Simone Osborn) is poignantly expressive and gorgeously rendered.

The toughest role belongs to Riel and it is done superbly by baritone Russell Braun. He has to portray the complex Riel from the religious zealot who thinks he is called by God to do His work, to the teacher and family man who is tempted to abandon politics, to the firebrand leader and in the end the person accused of treason who must choose between the defense of insanity or justification for his actions. That is a daunting array of facets that require vocal strength and tone and Braun does it with assurance and panache.

Sir John A. (baritone James Westman) dressed in red tartan and Sir George-Étienne Cartier (tenor Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure), in blue tartan, are almost comic as lying politicians. The Catholic Church is present through Bishop Taché (bass Alain Coulombe) and Baptiste Lépin (tenor Taras Chmil).

The opera is sung in English, French, Michif and Cree with surtitles in all four languages. I could not tell difference between Michif, the language of the Metis and Cree but the approach showed respect for both peoples.

There were moments when there was a great deal of dialogue moving quickly and it was difficult to follow the surtitles and watch the action on stage.          

(l-r) Peter Barrett as Col. Garnet Wolseley, James Westman as Sir John A. Macdonald, Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure as Sir George-Étienne Cartier and Alain Coulombe as Bishop Taché . PHoto: Michael Cooper
Director Peter Hinton, Set Designer Michael Gianfranco and Costume Designer made no attempt at giving us a realistic representations of the events. The set consisted mostly three walls but at times the chorus was inserted in rows of seats at the rear. The scenes in Ottawa, the church and Riel’s house made appropriate changes to indicate the locale.

Johannes Debus conducted the COC Orchestra in an impressive performance of the largely unfamiliar twists and turns of Somers’ music.

Louis Riel is remarkable by just being there. It is a Canadian opera, about a major event in Canadian history, produced by Canadians with a Canadian cast. But this is only the third time that the COC has staged it. First in 1967, then in 1975 and now in 2017. Those are very long coffee breaks. Opera goers who are used to repeated viewings and therefore familiarity with Mozart, Verdi, Puccini and the rest do not get a chance to get to know this opera. The production was greeted with mostly polite applause. If the opera was better known, the applause would have been far more enthusiastic.

Can we get a reprise, a DVD, a broadcast on television, a new production in a few years? 

Let’s hope that we will get a more timely exposure to the opera than it took for the “revival” of Louis Riel. He was executed in 1885 for treason but in 2016 his portrait was placed in the legislature building in Winnipeg and he is recognized as the founder of the province of Manitoba!

Louis Riel by Harry Somers with a libretto by Mavor Moore with Jacques Languirand opened on April 20 and will be performed seven times until May 13, 2017 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671. www.coc.ca


Reviewed by James Karas

Young People’s Theatre has come up with the inspired idea of staging some of Robert Munsch’s children’s stories for youngsters from 4 to 8 years of age. Stephen Colella and YPT’s Artistic Director Allen MacInnis  have adapted five stories to be acted by three actors. Cheri Maracle, Dov Mickelson and Lisa Nasson play the various roles in the stories.

The stage has a minimal set and everything depends on the story-telling and representation of the actors. We see Pigs, the story of the young Megan who is told to feed the pigs but not to let them out. Of course, she does and the pigs which she considers dumb and ugly, invade her world.
Cheri Maracle and Lisa Nasson in Munschtime!  Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
The story has its charm, its humour and the underlying lesson. The children in the audience had settled down and all of them seemed to be watching a familiar story acted out. The charm and the lesson were there but there was not a lot of laughs being generated.

Murmel, Murmel, Murmel tells the story of little Robin who finds a baby in the hole of her sandbox. She goes around trying to give it to someone to take care of it but nobody wants the baby. It seems to be no good to anyone until she meets a truck driver who has lots of trucks but no baby. He takes the baby and gives Robin his truck. Charming.

Love You Forever is a very moving story about maternal love from the birth of her son, through growing up, old age, death and the next generation. The love that the mother feels for her child permeates the story through all of life’s changes until her death and the beginning of the next generation as her son hugs his own child and begins to love him forever. A wonderful story.

A Promise is a Promise is about monsters who live under the ice. A child promises to go fishing in the lake but disobeys and goes fishing under the ice on the sea in Canada’s north. She starts fishing in the cracks in the sea. She is grabbed by the monsters and pulled under the ice.  She is eventually saved, of course, through parental wisdom and intervention.
Dov Mickelson and Lisa Nasson in Munschtime!  Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Too Much Stuff! is about the child that has just that and wants to bring it with her on the plane. She stuffs her backpack with toys against her parents’ advice with the inevitable results.

Maracle, Mickeslon and Nasson go through quick role and costume changes in front of an audience that seemed to know the stories. I felt that the children in the audience were primed for laughter and there was very little in the performances to make them laugh.

For many children this may well have been the first or one of the first times in the theatre and kudos to YPT for choosing familiar stories to introduce the future generation of theatrephiles to the great art.  

Munschtime!  adapted by Stephen Colella and Allen MacInnis from the stories by Robert Munsch and directed by Herbie Barnes continues until May 14, 2017 at the Young People’s Theatre, 165 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario. 416 862-2222. www.youngpeoplestheatre.ca

Monday, April 24, 2017


Reviewed by James Karas

Toronto’s remarkable Opera Atelier has scored another remarkable cultural event with its production of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Medea. The opera was first performed in 1693 and the dynamic duo of Marshall Pynkoski (director) and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg (choreographer) give us a production that captures the drama, choreographic splendour and colour of the piece with astonishing success.

Médée is a killer role for a soprano. (Pynkoski uses the English version of Medea for the title but employees the French names for the characters and I am following his example). Soprano Peggy Kriha Dye has all the equipment to tackle the role and come out on top. Médée has enough faces to make your head spin. She killed her father and her brother because she was in love with Jason and she helped him steal the Golden Fleece. She is angry because he is about to dump her for Princess Créuse. She is furious with King Creon because he is throwing her out of Corinth where she has taken refuge, she is also a sorceress who can call on the spirits of the underworld.
 Colin Ainsworth (Jason) and Mireille Asselin (Créuse). Photo by Bruce Zinger
All of these facets make vocal and acting demands on Ms Dye. She is in love, in hate, in vengeance, in rage, in lamentation and in killing her children. She gives a stunning performance.

Tenor Colin Ainsworth plays the perfidious Jason who is in love with Ceruse, pretends to still love Médée and becomes the target of her furor and lust for revenge. Ainsworth takes on the role with vocal and physical agility and tries hard to beat the odds as Jason but he does not stand a chance.

Soprano Mireille Asselin is the basically nice Créuse who is in love with Jason and must beg Médée to restore her father Creon’s reason after she has driven him to insanity. That is a very dramatic scene as is her own death from the poisonous gown provided by Médée. A fine performance all around.

Exceptional performances are turned in by bass-baritone Stephen Hegedus as the dictatorial Creon who gets a going mad scene and baritone Jesse Blumberg as Oronte, the man who is after Créuse.

Set Designer Gerard Gauci has created a number of backdrops and effects from the monumental to the idyllic to the fiery to indicate the underworld.

As expected in French opera of the period there is generous use of dancing and Ms Zingg has choreographed a number of sequences from the elegant dance of the spirits, to dances of warriors, demons and phantoms.

Peggy Kriha Dye (centre) and Stephen Hegedus (front), with Artists of Atelier Ballet. Photo by Bruce Zinger.
Medea has a rich and highly varied score that deals with all the situations and moods mentioned above. The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra under David Fallis give a superb performance.

Medea has been quite popular with composers and there are more than fifty operas based on the myth. The most famous treatment is perhaps Luigi Cherubini’s Medea of 1797. The earliest treatment of the myth seems to be Cavalli’s Giasone of 1649 and the most recent appears to be Gavin Bryars’ Medea (1982).   

Opera Atelier is taking this production of Medea to Versailles to show them what Canadians can do. Too bad Canada is not funding more productions of baroque operas. At two a year by Opera Atelier it is pretty pathetic but don’t tell the French that. They probably think we have so many productions, we actually export them.    

Medea  by Marc-Antoine Charpentier with libretto by Thomas Corneille opened on April 22 and will be performed until April 29, 2017 at the Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge Street, Toronto, Ontario. www.operaatelier.com

Thursday, April 20, 2017


Reviewed by James Karas

Helen and Danny live in a nice apartment and are having dinner with some white wine. They have one child but have reason to celebrate: Helen is pregnant again. 

That is the opening scene of Orphans by Dennis Kelly now playing in a terrific production at the Coal Mine Theatre in Toronto.

The happy scene is quickly broken with the entry of Helen’s brother Liam who is covered with blood. He speaks quickly, nervously, in broken sentences in a thick Cockney accent that reveals more than he says. He saw an injured man on the street, he tells his sister and his brother-in-law and he tried to help him but they start asking questions, a lot of questions, and we start doubting Liam’s version of events.

The plot of Kelly’s brilliant 2009 play shifts like the proverbial quicksand as the dynamics among the three characters change. Liam, played superbly by Tim Dowler-Coltman, looks for support from his sister, is beaten down with questioning, seethes with violence, takes the upper hand and we slowly get the revelation of a racist and indeed a monster. An admirable performance by Dowler-Coltman.
 Diana Bentley and Tim Dowler-Coltman in Orphans. Photo: Shaun Benson  
Diana Bentley as Helen goes through a number of transformations as the sister of Liam. The two were raised as orphans after the tragic death of their parents and they need to stand by each other. She tries to protect Liam but is compelled to keep asking questions about the incident with the injured stranger. Her husband Danny appears like a reserved gentleman but is he that or a coward? Again we have the shifting sand and the continuing revelations. Bentley gives a finely controlled and nuanced performance.

David Patrick Flemming as Danny appears reserved and gentlemanly, the type of character that may be described in the old phrase as having a stiff upper lip. There is more to him than that and we see him as well go through different phases as the situation unfolds. A splendid performance.

The set by Brian Dudkiewicz in the tiny theatre (it is really a converted store with about eighty seats at each end of the space with a playing area in the middle) consists of a couch and a table and chairs with a simple bookshelf. It looks pleasant enough for a young couple.

At an hour and a half with no intermission, with numerous changes in the relations among the three main characters, the play presents considerable difficult in maintaining a taut pace and unfailing performances. The credit for that goes to director Leona Morris for delivering a gem of a production.

The fourth character is the play Shane, the couple’s young boy, played by Cody Black.

When we have become fully aware of Liam’s character and get a glimpse of the world or at least his version of the world, we and Helen and Danny have seen something dreadful. Helen’s reaction goes from the celebration of her pregnancy in the opening scene to considering abortion at the end.

An outstanding night at the theatre.

Orphans by Dennis Kelly opened on April 12 and will run until April 30, 2017 at the 

Wednesday, April 12, 2017


Reviewed by James Karas

Babis Tsokas, the Greek-Swedish director, describes his film Our Maria Callas about the famous soprano as a dramatized documentary. That looks like an oxymoron but as it turns out that it is in fact a documentary with dramatized sections.

The film concentrates on the personal history, the tragic life and the Greek roots of the great singer. Her artistic achievement is mentioned and we hear her voice in the background singing some of her signature arias but the film is an homage to the tragic woman who achieved greatness in art but rarely found happiness.

Tsokas, born in 1945, immigrated to Sweden in 1969 and like many immigrants searches his roots. He does the same thing with Callas. Her paternal roots are in a village called Neochori in Messinia. Tsokas finds the ancestral Callas home in the village which looks like a house in Syria that was just bombed. 
 Tsokas (left) filming Myrto Kamvisidi

Maria never lived in that village because her parents left for the United States in July 1923 after the death of their son Vassilis and perhaps because of it. Maria was born in New York on December 2, 1923. She visited the village of her roots during World War II. Tsokas emphasizes Callas’s “Greekness” throughout the film and looks to the tragic aspects of her life as being akin to the fate of some of the heroines of Ancient Greek tragedy.

The importance that Tsokas places on Callas’s Greekness ranges from her singing a traditional Greek song in her youth, to the time she spent in Greece between 1937 and 1945 and visited Neochori, and to her consciousness of being Greek throughout her life.  When she is betrayed by tycoon Aristotle Onassis (he famously dumped her for Jackie Kennedy) Tsokas thinks of the betrayed as a parallel to Medea’s fate who hurls curses at the treachersous Jason who abandons her for a princess.

Maria’s mother showed little affection for her and always favored her sister Jackie. Relations between the two deteriorated so drastically that in the end her mother did not even attend Maria’s funeral.

Tsokas uses film clips and still photos from the life of Callas and dramatizes some parts in black and white and others in colour. He uses Myrto Kamvisidi to play Callas. She has is a strikingly beautiful face that bears some resemblance to Callas (who was not beautiful) and she speaks lines attributed to the soprano as well as singing a lullaby. There is no attempt for her to act out Callas’s histrionic side but she does illustrate some events in the life of Callas.
 Tsokas and Kamvisidi
One of the touching scenes that Tsokas recreates with Kamvisidi is Callas’s visit to the Chapel on the private island of Scorpios where Onassis is buried. She is carrying flowers for his tomb but the chapel is locked and she is forced to simply leave the flowers behind. Onassis was the love of her life. She had been married to Giovanni Battista Meneghini   and Tsokas gives an image of a loving couple where he adores and protects her and she loves him but more like a father than passionate mate. There is a darker side to the controlling Meneghini but there is no doubt that he helped her career and her letters to him show deep emotion.   

Tsokas used over two hundred volunteers and all the actors, except Kamvisidi, were amateurs and were used more to illustrate scenes than to act in them. We visit some of the cities of Callas’s triumphs (New York, London, Paris, Milan, and Verona) as well as residences in Greece and Paris.

We get an engrossing picture of the woman behind the voice and the legend. Tsokas views Callas’s life as tragic. The applause, the adulation and the fame were inevitably followed by a lonely evening at her apartment. Tsokas attributes some of her emotional turmoil and depression to her loveless relationship with her mother, her tragic relationship with Onassis and her failure to produce any children.

Tsokas I think sums up her life by reference to one of the arias that she sung so gloriously: Vissi d'arte from Act II of Puccini’s Tosca. Tosca, a singer, who is about to sacrifice her life for her lover sums up her life in words that are applicable to Maria as well. “I lived for my art, I lived for love. I never did harm to a living soul!”

Callas was supreme in her art, unfortunate in her love and a woman of the Greek diaspora whose life and achievement stretched from the valleys of Messinia to the plains of ancient Attica and around the world.   

Our Maria Callas, a film directed by Babis Tsokas was shown at the Polymenakio Cultural Centre 30 Thorncliffe Park Drive, Toronto, ON M4H 1H8 on April 3, 2017.

Sunday, April 2, 2017


Reviewed by James Karas

Laura Henderson gained fame and notoriety in the 1930’s by showing naked breasts in her theatre in London.  She became the subject of the 2005 film Mrs Henderson Presents in which she was played by Judi Dench. The story proved too good to be ignored and a musical based on it appeared in 2015 and is now playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre.

Mr Henderson had the misfortune of dying in 1919 but had the decency to leave the feisty Mrs Henderson with a hefty pile of money. She used it to buy a theatre and hired a no-nonsense manager to run it. The Windmill Theatre in London’s West end was not a success and something had to be done about it. How about some naked breasts?
The cast of MRS HENDERSON PRESENTS ©2017, Cylla von Tiedemann
In conservative, censored England of the 1930’s that was unlikely to be allowed but, one could see paintings of naked women in the museum. Botticelli, Raphael, Rubens and many other artists celebrated nudity, so why not bare breasted women in the theatre? It was acceptable to do that provided the women stood still as if they were paintings.

There are a few good lines about nakedness in the musical. When you go below, far below the breasts you reach the pudendum which is a foreign word that few can understand. Well, call the area the Netherlands and make it more acceptable with the use of conservative hair dresses.

How Mrs Henderson and Van Damm got around the restriction on nudity in the theatre is the most famous aspect of the story, but it is by no means a central concern of the musical. This is a story about London in the late 1930’s and during the war, about backstage life in a theatre that produced continuous revues, about love, loss and a couple of interesting characters.

Tracie Bennett as Mrs Henderson and Peter Polycarpou as the manager Vivian Van Damm dominate the performance. Mrs Henderson is crotchety, tough, humane, difficult to get along with and in the end a bit of a theatrical legend. Bennett has a husky voice that she uses to good effect in an enjoyable performance.
Tracie Bennett and Evelyn Hoskins in MRS HENDERSON PRESENTS ©2017, Cylla von Tiedemann
Polycarpou as Van Damm is a good match for Mrs Henderson as a man of the theatre who has to deal with financial and artistic issues and we admire the relationship that he forges with his boss.

There is a touching love story involving Eddie (Matthew Malthouse) and Maureen (Evelyn Hoskins) who sing “What a Waste of a Moon” and bring home the effects of war. We have a seen in the London Underground where people hid during the bombing of the city as well as the determination to carry on. Mrs Henderson’s theatre was the only one that did not close during the war.

The set by Tim Shortall shows the backstage of Mrs Henderson’s theatre as well as the open roof garret and the underground to good effect.

The costumes by Paul Wills are colourful for the performers and appropriate for the other characters. The choreography by Andrew Wright has the fine feel of British music hall dancing perfectly matching what we would have wanted to see if we were there some eighty years ago, give or take. Full credit to director Terry Johnson.

The music by George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain ranges from recitative to almost ballad and the lyrics by Don Black are appropriate. The book by Terry Johnson tells the story well with good humour, dramatic scenes and touching romance that make for a very pleasant night at the theatre.

Mrs Henderson Presents by Terry Johnson (Book) Don Black (Lyrics),  George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain (Music), continues  until April 23, 2017 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King St. W. Toronto, Ont. www.mirvish.com